Starting the process of invoicing can be really daunting. If the only experience you have with sending bills is requesting a Venmo for margaritas you covered at a dive bar, you might feel a bit out of your depth. In truth, the process of invoicing sounds much more formal than it often is. When interpreters talk about invoicing they’re referring to the process of sending a bill for work they did for an agency or client and setting off the payment process.
There are some very important things to know about invoicing
- You need to have a system to track them. That system should make sense to you and you should be able to explain it to an accountant if they have questions. If your invoicing tracking system is an Ikea bag full of sticky notes, you should consider the very small investment of your time into a better system. When I first started freelancing I used Numbers on Mac which is the equivalent of Excel. I tracked each invoice by number, client, date, rate, project, total and other details. For me, that worked really well until I needed something else. More on that later.
- You should create a template. You could absolutely waste your life reinventing every invoice from scratch if that’s your passion project but if you really don’t like tedious work; make a template and just plug in the numbers for each client/project/rate etc…
- Invoices are not some idea that can make sense to you and no one else. Someone actually has to receive your invoice it, understand it, process it and write a check for it. You want that person to be able to do those things quickly and efficiently mostly because you don’t want to annoy the person in charge of paying you.
- Invoicing is a system that is core to your independence as a freelancer. Taking pride in it will help you establish stronger boundaries, maintain more autonomy and reduce the risk of being taken by agencies when you’re not paying attention.
- Your invoices need to come in a timely manner. The day after a gig is completely fine, often the day of is completely fine… unless you’re doing recurring work in which case you should compile a grouping at a time (like a week).
How do I make an invoice
Ready to invoice? Start here.
When do I get paid?
Each agency has their own system but as a contractor you can also bring payment guidelines by way of your terms of service. That means that if an agency typically pays 60 days after receiving your invoice you can include in your terms of service the need to receive payment within 30 days. I’ve personally never bothered with this and just followed their pay schedule because it’s less of a hassle and if I want other things, this one is very low on the negotiation totem pole.
Most agencies I’ve ever worked with pay on what’s called a NET 30 which is to say they will send your payment exactly 30 days after they receive your invoice – not 30 business days but 30 full days on the calendar. So if you plan on invoicing them monthly that means a longer wait. Let’s say you work every day in the month of January and you invoice agency X monthly. On Feb 1st you would submit your invoice, they would confirm and you would receive a net 30 check on either March 2nd or 3rd (depending on if they count the day they received your invoice). That first gig you did on Jan 1st will be paid for 60 days later. That’s a long time, so if you’re tight on cash and the gigs are higher in dollar amount you might want to invoice them weekly. I’ve met interpreters who invoice daily and I think that’s absurd. It creates so much additional work for the client/agency and often times they will just combine payments in checks. Plus, waiting for a paper check/payment to arrive every single day is complete madness. Unless you’re trying to test if the postal service is working, consider weekly or monthly.
For more information about NET 10/30/60 be sure to check out the glossary.
How do I get paid?
This one is controversial. So let’s dive right in!
In many markets, interpreters are staunchly opposed to direct deposit and it’s understandable why. The IRS has specific limitations and restrictions on what we as independent contractors are able and not able to do in partnership with agencies. It’s mostly for our own protection. If an agency is treating us like employees, they need to be paying for things like insurance and Workmans comp etc… Direct Deposit being something that is traditionally only offered to employees, it is a source of contention with many interpreters as they argue it is enough to classify a contractor as an employee. I was one of those interpreters who refused direct deposit for years and with some agencies I still do. Like all things, it’s truly up to you.
I typically go direct deposit if it’s an agency I have a long time relationship with and we’re doing tons of business together. It makes things quicker, saves them on cost, saves me the effort. If you’re in a position where boundaries might get hazy and this is an opportunity to establish a clear line in the sand, draw it here. Absolutely! I can honestly say I only accept it from one agency as of writing.
Paper checks certainly are most common in my experience but for me it’s a bit more work and so when I’m counting on the payments I typically plan on holding on to the check for 7-14 additional days until I go to the bank or mobile deposit. I then plan for additional week or two for any issues with processing (just as a safety measure. 99% of the time it’s 2 days if anything).
So if you operate like I do, you can plan on receiving the money 60 days after doing the gig and that’s if I’m invoicing on time. The tricky part with avoiding a direct deposit system is keeping track of the paperwork. I would say the vast majority of interpreters will count this as hardly a big deal and for me it’s not really a hassle either, it’s just one more thing I need to do. Surprisingly, I’m a fan of paper checks over other systems. The paper trail is much easier.
To caution you about direct deposit, I once had an agency type my account number incorrectly and contribute the least amount of effort in correcting the error. It took me almost 6 months to receive a little over five thousand dollars I was waiting on. They continuously told me it was the bank and they had to wait for a holding period when in reality they could have cancelled the payment, filled out a simple form and wired me a new payment all in under an hour. To me, it was another example of how little an agency would do to earn my business when I was expected to stare at my email 24/7 waiting for their non-urgent requests. Lesson learned.
With private clients you can absolutely offer credit card payments. I can tell you in almost a decade of freelancing I haven’t received enough of these for a payment processing membership to be worth it. Currently I use Stripe as the tracking and reporting features are fantastic. Plus, the bank transfers are automatic and scheduled which is even easier. If you’re going to accept credit card payments or other electronic funds transfers from private clients outside of your banks offerings, check out this post for our review on the newest, most popular softwares. I always urge colleagues to shop around whenever possible as these decisions can have lasting impacts when you’re talking the numbers at the end of the year.
Who do I send it to?
Whenever possible, try to send it to the most familiar person in the chain. If your contact person is willing to accept it, fantastic. Often, you’ll send it to the contact person who will then forward to the accounts payable person while keeping you CC’d. If the contact person sends you a note like “you can send your invoice to David at Ap@blahpublishing” you don’t need to keep them CC’d. While there is nothing inherently wrong with it, it’s just not necessary. The same applies to people who didn’t participate in numbers/negotiation discussions. You can leave them off the email thread along with service users who didn’t have any hand in establishing the contract in the first place.
- Ensure that your invoice is legible and in .PDF format. Invoices that aren’t in .PDF are easier to edit and you should never be receiving an invoice that’s different than what you sent.
- Triple check your invoices. First when you make it, second when you convert it to .PDF and third when you attach it.
- Don’t be lazy. Invoicing is a huge part of your brand and it matters how you represent yourself to clients. Being sloppy with them is a huge red flag which will instantly count you out for major jobs that require a sense of professionalism and added responsibility. I’ve received contracts from clients who passed up the previous interpreter for this reason. They felt they couldn’t handle the scope of the work given their lax invoicing process.